One question I get from friends and family a lot when they hear I’m travelling to look at the diaries and letters of a little known woman writer is, “Why don’t they just put it all up on the internet?” I try to explain how much you get from seeing the physical manuscript—that ink colours,watermarks, and the type of stationery can all be clues as to the date and circumstances of composition. Sometimes I try to explain how overextended rare books librarians are, that there are copyright issues and issues of ownership, and that many libraries simply don’t have the massive amounts of money it would take to digitize their archives. But the truth is, it would be easier if it were all accessible on the web, even if only as a resource to consult before looking at the original.
I think, underlying this question is a kind of fantasy of transparency. It’s the idea that if all the archives in all the world were up on the internet, all the information they contain would be clear, neat, and speedily accessible to anyone who cared to look it up. But even the best organized of archives can be a labyrinth to get through. It took me a bit to realize that letters only have one intended reader (and it isn’t me!) and that diaries are usually meant for the diarist’s eyes only. It takes a lot of time and patience to wade through enough material to get the context to figure out what the letter-writer is talking about, and if you don’t have enough continuous letters to the same person, you may not get enough context. It can be maddening. Dinah Mulock Craik had tea with the Darwins at Down house the other day, but she didn’t say what she thought of evolution. It was her diary, and all she wanted to remember was a pleasant afternoon with friends.
A lot of the work of the archival scholar is to mediate and shape the archive—to make things clear, neat, and speedily accessible—so that not everyone needs to wade through the dust. (This work is always done with the understanding that the tidying up is partial, both in the sense of having a specific point of view and of being only part of the story.) This reminds me of Mary Poovey’s influential that the labour of the man of letters is enabled by the labour of the housewife—both are invisible, humanizing, and comforting (27). But are there really that many Victorian novels where everything is swept under the carpet by the end? Even the hero of Poovey’s test case, David Copperfield, goes through a tremendous amount of grief for what has always appeared to me to be a less than satisfactory ending with Agnes. Poovey’s notion is perhaps a more apt description of the work of the archival scholar, who may spend weeks straightening out the differences between two manuscripts versions of the same text, or clearing up what is known about the relationship between two writers. Both kinds of work are often under-appreciated, but very necessary.
Oh dear. I think I’ve just depressed myself. Of course, there’s always the mystique of the archive, and the days when you find something, really exciting. But that’s for another post. In the meantime, I should get back to my “housekeeping”!
Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.